This post is written by Heather Tiel-Nelson, spokesperson for Magic Valley Bureau of Land Management

File photo by Andrew Weeks

Twin Falls, Idaho— BLM Twin Falls District Fire Management Safety and Training Officer Clay Stephens hailed back to his roots when he accepted a 30-day fire assignment in Australia. “I was born in Australia, so I was excited to return— nervous too, considering the magnitude of the fire and the conditions we would be facing,” said Stephens.

When he arrived in Victoria, Australia, he was met by headlines declaring “Firefighters regroup with apocalyptic conditions set to return on Saturday.” This set the stage for what was to come next as just up the coast from Stephens’ base camp, residents were being evacuated to ships stationed in the ocean.

“The Tambo Complex fire I was on was 1.5 million acres,” said Stephens. “We don’t get fires like that here, not even close— it was twice as big as the largest fire I’ve ever been on; pure craziness.”

Adjusting to the differences in fire management operations—Incident Commanders are called Incident Controllers, acreages are described in hectares, and Division Supervisors are Sector Bosses— was somewhat natural. Learning to read the different fuel type and determining how it would burn was a different story. Eucalyptus trees are far different than the sagebrush rangelands of south-central Idaho.

“I managed burn operations to control the perimeter of the fire and one to protect a local inn. We started each of these operations very slowly until we determined how the fire would burn. Thankfully, most of the burnout operations went smoothly and we were able to meet our objectives.”

“Another situation that I found interesting: here in Idaho, we have more vegetation growing on our northern slopes; since Australia is in the southern hemisphere, their southern slopes were far more covered by growth. Another reminder that we were on the other side of the world!”

When asked what stood out the most to Stephens about his assignment he immediately responded, “Do you remember how we were after the 9-11 national tragedy? Petty differences didn’t matter, and people truly cared for one another. Kindness was paramount…that’s how it was in Victoria. The locals were so happy to see us, thankful for our efforts and humble and kind to one another. That was very cool to see.”

Once back in Twin Falls, Clay traveled to his wife’s second grade class at Paul Elementary to share his experiences in Australia with the students. “They were especially intrigued by my photos of the koalas, kangaroos and echidna,” said Stephens. Check out photos HERE.